I want to suggest that God wants us to mourn.
This may seem like a provocative statement to make—especially in the landscape of the Church’s subtle insistence that the merit of following Jesus is based on his faithfulness to take one’s problems away. After all, isn’t the culminating vision of the Kingdom one in which there is no more suffering, sorrow, or death with God Himself wiping away any residual tears? Emphatically I want to affirm this by saying, yes! Yet, this hopeful vision ought to be tempered by Jesus’ own declaration that mourners are indeed “blessed.”
When I was child my little sister was born with a number of birth defects. Each of these stemmed from a separation in her corpus callosum, the area that connects the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Consequentially, she battles epilepsy, has had to develop her motor skills, and curiously she was unable to perceive pain. There was legitimate fear that she could place her hand on a hot stovetop and not even realize that she was being burned. And so, my parents sent her to physical therapy to actually learn how to hurt. I can vividly recall inciting my dad incredulously “Why are we doing this to her?! Isn’t it cruel?” After all, when I hurt, I simply want any sort of pill that I can get my hands on to numb the pain. With all that she’s had to battle, isn’t this the one silver lining for my sister—to be impervious to pain? I’ll never forget what my dad said to me. “Buddy,” he said smiling with sympathy, “pain is a gift.”
Pain is a gift.
Pain is the first step in healing. It is the first instigation that something is occurring that should not be. It is a signal to our body that harm is being done. In the same way, mourning is a gift that signals that something has gone awry in our world. Mourning is a flare blazing in the night sky signaling for God’s Kingdom to come. Mourning is the first instigation towards wholeness.
The question then becomes: what does God want us to mourn?
In the Old Testament, a man living in privilege and prominence in Persia named Nehemiah weeps bitterly and mourns deeply at the news that Jerusalem’s city gates remained in ruins.
Think about that.
He mourns… for broken city gates.
This is perplexing, is it not—especially when considering these were gates to a city Nehemiah had never seen?
For the sake of clarity, I would define mourning as the response to the loss of that which is valuable.
Therefore, the inference can be made that not only were the gates of immense value, there was also a sense of ownership and belonging that Nehemiah felt towards these gates.
Why were these gates valuable?
In the Ancient Near East, the city gates were the center of the political sphere, the cultic practice, and judicial proceedings. The city gates were the location at both military and civic pronouncements. These gates were the host to communal deliberations, social gatherings, and the marketplace. In short, the entire livelihood of the city was dependent upon the gates.
Remarkably, the nine functions of the city gates within the Ancient Near East correspond with what Bob Roberts refers to as the “domains of [contemporary] society.” These domains include, economics, agriculture, education, science and technology, communication, the arts, the political sphere, in addition to community gathering places.
Revisiting the initial provocative statement, we must ask: Do we mourn when these “gates” or “domains” falter in our neighborhoods and cities? If there are any parallels between our neighborhoods and Nehemiah’s Jerusalem, then his response to repent before God for these collapsed gates are surely indicting upon us.
For roughly 70 years prior to Nehemiah, Jerusalem had been re-inhabited from exile with the Temple rebuilt and the observance of the Law reinstituted! Somehow the community of God found no qualms with possessing a vibrant religiosity that had no bearing upon the city. Nehemiah discovered that the community of God in Jerusalem were living what missiologist Michael Frost calls an “excarnated” faith.
We too, are not impervious to the dangers of an “excarnated” faith. Highly emotional worship, privatized pietism, and the language of a “personal Savior” can detach us from our cities and keep us from mourning our damaged city gates. Frost notes in his book Incarnate, “You know you are living an excarnate form of religion when your adoration of the God you encounter in the place of rigorous theological study has superseded anything you could experience in the service of others or the place of real physical connection with the poor or the lost.”
I am not suggesting that a personal pursuit of faith in Christ is erroneous or that it is necessarily wrong. Rather, I am advocating that we allow ourselves to mourn deeply for the city gates in our own context.
After all, mourning is the first step in the healing our communities so badly need.